Friday, April 15, 2011

Is teen motherhood pathological?

Figurine of African American grandmother and child.

Is teenage childbearing pathological? Anthropologist Linda Burton argues otherwise in her study of an African American community, and she cites other researchers who have come to similar conclusions:

Hamburg (1986) suggests that teenage childbearing, within certain poor black subgroups, reflects an alternative life-course strategy rather than a nonnormative life event. […] Furthermore, the long-term outcomes of teenage childbearing in these subcultures are not necessarily as devastating as mainstream impressions imply (Furstenberg et al. 1987). Rather, early childbearing may be perceived as a viable option that fosters individual growth, family continuity, and cultural survival in an environment in which few other avenues for enhancing development are available. (Burton, 1990, p. 124)

By viewing teenage childbearing as a reproductive strategy, with its own logic and life goals, we may better understand why it happens and know how to prevent it. Viewing it as a pathology has simply given us “solutions” that don’t work … and endless rationalizations for their failure to work.

Among African Americans, this reproductive strategy has one key characteristic: an accelerated family timetable. All life stages begin and end earlier:

Childhood: 1 to 10 years of age

Adolescence: 11 to 13

Motherhood: 14 to 26

Grandmotherhood: 35 to 45

Great grandmotherhood: 56 to 68

There is also separation of reproduction from marriage. Parenting is provided by the child’s mother and maternal grandmother. The father is usually absent. Households tend to be multigenerational with much exchange of services between younger and older generations and between siblings.

[…] given the fact that teenage childbearing families have more children per generation, it is likely that they have a broader array of potential caregivers, including older children who can assist in the care of their younger siblings, young adults who can help older family members, and young grandmothers who can parent the infants of teen mothers (Burton, 1990, p. 128)

Burton found that some African American women “covertly and sometimes overtly encouraged their teenage daughters to bear a child.” They wished to have the experience of rearing children—an experience denied them when they themselves had to rely on their maternal grandmothers many years earlier.

Once the maternal grandmother becomes a primary caregiver, the cycle of early motherhood tends to self-perpetuate. This is suggested by comments to Burton from a 35-year-old potential grandmother:

I suspect that my daughter (14 years old) will have a baby soon. If she doesn't I'll be too old to be a grandmother and to do the things I'm supposed to do, like raise my grandchild. (Burton, 1990, p. 132)

Similarly, a 58-year-old great-grandmother told Burton:

The best way to make sure that you have enough able bodies to take care of the needs in the family is to start the women having children as soon as they can. (Burton, 1990, p. 133)

Similarities and dissimilarities with the African marriage system

So far, most of the above sounds like the African system of mating and reproduction, as discussed in the last two posts. Unlike sub-Saharan Africa, however, polygyny is not institutionalized. Instead of being secondary sources of childcare, men are typically absent altogether:

In contrast to the duties of females, the role responsibilities of males in the family are ambiguous. Both the male and female respondents indicated that few familial duties are assigned to males. As young children, boys could assist girls with household tasks. Once male children reach later childhood, however, their energies are invested outside the home. Beginning at about age 10, the socialization of boys is primarily in the hands of peers and older men in the community who instruct them in the ways of survival in Gospel Hill. These instructions focus on job opportunities for black men, male/female relationships, and sexual behavior. (Burton, 1990, p. 135)

As in sub-Saharan Africa, the mother identifies first and foremost with her own kin. Unlike sub-Saharan Africa, however, she isn’t just less attached to the father. She is estranged from him, and this estrangement borders on hostility if the father consorts with white women. The following comment is from a 14-year-old mother:

Ever since I can remember I always expected to have a baby when I was 15 or 16 but I never believed I would ever have a chance to get a husband. One of the things my grandmother always said, "Pay your dues to your kin because they will take care of you. There ain't no reason to waste your time on a colored man because they don't want us no way." (Burton, 1990, p. 133)

Curiously, while citing Patricia Draper’s study on African marriage systems, Linda Burton attributes this polygyny and low paternal investment to factors that are specific to the United States. Hence, racism and the shift from manufacturing to services is said to prevent African American men from getting good jobs and becoming active fathers (Burton, 1990, p. 127).

Future of teenage childbearing among African Americans

While teenage childbearing can provide effective means of family formation, often more effective than later childbearing, it is not without its weaknesses. One of them is the willingness of maternal grandmothers to become primary caregivers. Personal autonomy is becoming a supreme value in all age groups of American society, including middle-aged and older women:

The majority of young grandmothers studied refused to assume the primary role in rearing their grandchildren. These grandmothers felt that being a surrogate parent for their grandchild did not fit with their current lifecourse activities--that included a variety of "young-adult" roles involving work, education, friendships, romance, and even their own continued childbearing. (Burton, 1990, p. 128)

Easier birth control, especially abortion, is also having an impact. Even when women wish to have children early in life, they still tend to postpone this kind of momentous decision—if given the choice.

African American fertility is now 2.2 children per woman, i.e., replacement level. And this rate is being buoyed up by a very fertile subculture of teen mothers. Most African Americans have, in fact, entered the zone of below-replacement fertility.


This teen mother subculture displays many elements of the African marriage system (polygyny, low paternal investment, high value placed on childbearing, strong ties with maternal kin). These elements, however, have to operate within Euro-American legal and cultural constraints, which are modeled on the marital norms of Eurasia in general and Western Europe in particular (long-term monogamy, high paternal investment, voluntary limitation of family size, relatively weak ties with kin beyond the nuclear family).

These constraints meet with varying degrees of compliance among African Americans. At one end of the continuum are those who fully comply. At the other are those who comply as little as possible, i.e., the teen mother subculture. The middle encompasses those who comply more or less.

Certain factions, notably the Black Muslims, have sought to create a new set of constraints that would be more in line with the African marriage system. But such efforts have largely failed. For the near future, at least, the teen mother subculture will become increasingly problematic, particularly as more and more older women refuse the obligations of grandmotherhood. The African American community as a whole will thus continue its slide into below-replacement fertility.


Burton, L.M. (1990). Teenage childbearing as an alternative life-course strategy in multigeneration black families, Human Nature, 1, 123-143.

Draper, P. (1989). African marriage systems: Perspectives from evolutionary ecology, Ethology and Sociobiology, 10, 145–169.


Anonymous said...

Modern languages evolved in Southern Africa.

Forever trying to prove that Africans are superior?

sykes.1 said...

Is the African pattern due to soil conditions in Africa. That is, does it take less heavy labor (which would be male) to till the African soils?

I believe I read a post pushing this theory once. What is it's current status?

Certainly, the African pattern must be somehow adaptive in Africa, and the European pattern must be adaptive in Europe.

Re Anonymous: That the humans who left Africa already had language is probable. If I understand the previous post, it is the foragers who exhibit the largest number of phonemes (including clicks), so even the Bantu (who are recent) have a reduced phoneme set. Anonymous' comment is out of line

Anonymous said...


This is kind of off topic, but I was wondering if you could look at an argument made by Sarich and Miele (2002) concerning genetic variance between populations.

The low Fst distance keeps getting trotted out to dismiss the possibility of genetic mediated differences. For example, Barbujani and Colonn (2010)-- both foes of the race concept -- note:

"Moving to the second question, differences between populations are often summarized by another popular figure, FST = 0.15 (Box 2), and this means that they account for roughly 15% of the species’ genetic variance [17–19]. The remaining 85% represents the average difference between members of the same population. One way to envisage these figures is to say that the expected genetic difference between unrelated individuals from distant continents exceeds by 15% the expected difference between members of the same community [20]"

It's hard for me to believe that Sarich and Miele could be right, given that almost everyone indicates otherwise, but I thought I'd ask.

Barbujani and Colonn, 2010. Human genome diversity: frequently asked questions

UncleTomRuckusInGoodWhiteWorld said...

African American teen pregnancy rates have been in decline for some time. There is no "African American Culture" of teen pregnancy. That is nonsense. There is a poverty culture that about 20-25% of African Americans live in, and one of the symptoms of this culture is teen pregnancy.

As you pointed out, if most African Americans lived this way the fertility rate would be far higher, but it is not, it is barely at replacement, and dropping.

100 years ago it was not unusual for Southern white and black women to get married in their late teens and start having children, largely because almost no one finished secondary school. My grandmother was married at 16 to my grandfather. My grandmother had 12 kids, she died, my grandfather remarried and had 2 more. He worked his entire life for an automotive company. My mother married in her early 20's and had me in her mid-20's, got divorced a couple of years later. Of her siblings, the average number of kids was 3, i think. One of my uncles has 6 kids though,by an ex-wife, and a current one.

I am in my mid-30's and have no kids, not yet, but I spent a lot of time in school (I have a Master's).

I don't think this situation is very odd. I also did not grow up in poverty, neither did my mother, but my grandfather grew up in rural Jim Crow poverty, that was just slightly better than slavery (Share Cropping culture).

As you can see the black teen birth rate in the U.S. has dropped about 25% in the last 20 years, and the Hispanic Mesitozs one is far higher.

Are Hispanics living like "Africans" too?

""Births: Final Data for 2002," from CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics shows that the teen birth rate declined by 30 percent over the past decade to a historic low and that the rate for black teens was down by more than 40 percent. For young black teens (15 to 17 years) the results were even more striking—the rate was cut in half since 1991."

Anonymous said...

I taught high school for several decades. The African American girls who got pregnant in grades 9-12 (huge numbers, not so with whites, increasing numbers for Hispanics) were simply following the template they had seen their mothers follow.

The best insight I have into reasons for this are not what people like to hear, but they come from the mouths of these girls: 1) I thought if I had his baby, he'd stick around, but he didn't and 2) It's not that bad getting pregnant--you get a check for it. My mom gets checks too.

And that's the truth.

Anonymous said...

Are you familiar with this study?

Rowe, 2002. IQ, birth weight, and number of sexual partners in White, African American, and mixed race adolescents.

The heritability of sexual proclivity is ~.4

(Cherkas, et al., 2004. Genetic Influences on Female Infidelity and Number of Sexual Partners in Humans: A Linkage and Association Study of the Role of the Vasopressin Receptor Gene (AVPR1A).

Peter Frost said...


I have no problem with the idea that modern humans originated in Africa. Evidently, the same is probably true for human language.


The "African marriage system" is predominant in sub-Saharan Africa, New Guinea, and Melanesia. The common environmental factor is not the soil type, but rather the absence of a cold season. Year-round agriculture enables women to provide for themselves and their children with minimal male assistance.

I've heard other explanations, which seem to me either implausible or a confusion of cause with effect. For instance, only one animal has been domesticated by sub-Saharan African agriculturalists (the Guinea fowl). Is this because Africa has few animals that could be domesticated for meat production? Or is this because animal domestication is largely done by male hunters? Since African men are peripheral to family food provisioning, there has been little incentive for them to domesticate wild animals.


I've dealt with this argument in previous posts. Yes, there is much more genetic variation within human populations than between them. But we see the same kind of genetic overlap between many sibling species that are nonetheless anatomically, physiologically, and behaviorally distinct.

When two populations differentiate under the impact of diverging selection pressures, this genetic differentiation concerns only a tiny fraction of the entire genome. This is so because (a) much genetic variability is of low selective value, often being little more than "junk" variability, and (b) the variability is equally adaptive in both of the new adaptive landscapes. If we look at the ABO blood system, I probably have more in common with certain apes than I do with you.

Dragon Horse,

I used the term "subculture", not "culture". So I obviously wasn't talking about all African Americans.

Your criticism would be more valid if you could show that a similar proportion of Euro-Americans participate in the same teen mother subculture. This isn't so.

Another non sequitur is your comparison with teen marriage (which used to be common and even normal in most human societies). In that situation, the father is a primary source of parental investment and the maternal grandmother a secondary source.


I agree that welfare has facilitated the teen mother subculture, but we also see this subculture in countries where welfare is not available. To some degree, sub-Saharan Africa has a similar system, although polygyny is institutionalized and the father does have a recognized (albeit secondary) role.


Yes, I've seen that study. I might comment on it in a later post

Chuck said...



I've dealt with this argument in previous posts. Yes, there is much more genetic variation within human populations than between them. But we see the same kind of genetic overlap between many sibling species that are nonetheless anatomically, physiologically, and behaviorally distinct."

I was more interested in the basic math. Does the 10-15% between population variance (Fst) (commonly found) translate into 22-35% between individual variance -- when we factor out intraindividual variance? Nobody seems to be able to give me an answer to this.

Based on my reading of Fst, it seems like it. But that isn't my field.

Chuck said...

" translate into 22-35% between individual variance -- when we factor out intraindividual variance?"

This should say: "between individual, between population variance"

UncleTomRuckusInGoodWhiteWorld said...


1) I used Hispanic (most of them in the U.S. are Mestizo) as a comparison. Is that not a fair one? They are not primarily African in decent, they are primarily Iberian/Amerindian.

2) Also, how can you look at numbers of out of wedlock teen pregnancy and assume that there is no paternal involvement because the teen is not married? Should I look at out of wedlock childbirth in Scandinavia and the UK and assume no paternal involvement? (that would be a false assumption). Being a "babies daddy" does not mean you don't take care of your children in "the hood", it means you aren't married to the mother. Not taking care of your children is not called a "babies daddy" as much as it is called "a dog".

3) If this subcultural is somehow biological (it seems to me you are implying this, although you did not say it, please correct me if I'm wrong) then why is it that this "subculture" all the sudden got far worse in the 1960's or so and then dramatically reduced starting in the early 1990's?

If we assume 25 years per generation, I don't believe African Americans had some great genetic gene sweep in 1 to 1.5 generations to explain this. Also African Americans had been "free" since the 1860's, you would assume that this trend would have been much greater the further back you go, but it is not. The overall teen pregnancy rate (out of wedlock) for black Americans increased sharply from the relatively low levels in the early 1900's not decreased slowly overtime.

I think a better way to look at this is, simple.

If white American catches a cold, black Americans will have pneumonia. I would bet money that if you track black and white Americans (and later Hispanics) you will see a rise in out of wedlock child birth, teen pregnancy, and divorce rates increasing from 1965 - 1995 and then trailing off sharply.

The difference is the black numbers would always be higher than the white, but the whites will show the same pattern, but it is an issue of "degree" not kind.

Eugene said...

You mentioned in your post something about "black men trying to consort with white women." Can you expand on that phenomenon, how common it is and why it occurs? Has there been any research into the topic of why black men are chasing after white women?

(By the way, African-Americans aren't the only group whose strategy is early reproduction. In the book "Sperm Wars" scientist Robin Baker argues that another group that does that is bisexuals/gays. Their sexual promiscuity, including with the opposite sex, leads to earlier reproduction but also early death due to diseases, a trade-off that keeps their rate in line with that of heterosexuals.)

Tod said...

Eugene, about what you put in quotation marks. Peter said no such thing and you don't deserve a response to comments like that.

Eugene said...

Tod, au contraire. It appears you didn't read the original post fully. I quote:

"She is estranged from him, and this estrangement borders on hostility if the father consorts with white women. The following comment is from a 14-year-old mother:

'...There ain't no reason to waste your time on a colored man because they don't want us no way.'"

End quote.

Henry Harpending said...

Peter much of this discussion leaves us with the impression that both in sub-Saharan Africa and in the US Black community males are kind of useless and irrelevant.

I don't know anything about US Black sociology but at least in some African groups males are both hard-working and responsible, not to their wives and children, but to their mothers, sisters, and sisters' children, i.e. right out of textbooks about matrilineal social organization.

Once in Africa the neighborhood matriarch/busybody summoned me for a chat as I was getting ready to go shoot a buffalo being destructive in the neighborhood. "When you die, Henry, as you surely will, what shall we do with all your property?"

"Give it to my wife" I said.

She was outraged and appalled. "Don't you Europeans have any responsibility to your families?" she asked. Never occurred to her that my wife was a member of my family. Instead my goods should go to my sisters, etc.

Tod said...

In Senegal men prefer to marry their maternal uncle's daughter.

UncleTomRuckusInGoodWhiteWorld said...

Senegal is because of Islam...many Arab men do the same

Peter Frost said...


I have trouble understanding Sarich and Miele's argument because we see the same pattern with Y chromosome and mtDNA variability, both of which are transmitted by one parent.

Dragon Horse,

I think I agree with you. I'm not arguing for some kind of genetic difference between the teen mother subculture and other African Americans.

Among African Americans, as among all populations, there is some variation in life circumstances. Some individuals are more strongly subjected than others to Euro-American marital norms.

These individuals account for a larger or smaller fraction of the African American population, in proportion to the ideological and cultural pressure of Euro-American norms. When the pressure was intense, about three-quarters of all African Americans complied with these norms. Today, this pressure has slackened considerably, so the "compliers" are correspondingly fewer in number.


You should read the book "Sexual Racism" by C.H. Stember. There are three main explanations:

1. Men in general tend to be more exogamous (because they tend to meet more strangers than women do).

2. African American men see exogamy as a form of revenge against White America.

3. African Americaan men perceive Euro-American women as more sexually attractive than their own women.

I personally don't give much weight to explanation #2. Most men are not political creatures. It also doesn't explain why African American men would also seek to marry Latina and Asian women.

Explanation #3 is probably the most important one. We can argue back and forth about the nature of sexual beauty and its causes, but it seems to have the most explanatory power.


I agree. In sub-Saharan Africa, polygyny is institutionalized, and men do have an important role in society. But, as you point out, a man's obligations are primarily to his own kin, not to his wife's.

Anonymous said...

"I personally don't give much weight to explanation #2. Most men are not political creatures. It also doesn't explain why African American men would also seek to marry Latina and Asian women."

Although generally I agree with you, I don't think we can dismiss his arguments so easily.

He may be referring to "revenge" in a psychological context as opposed to a political or sociological one.

I've read this line or reasoning before from other authors and I've seen plenty of good reasons that points to African exogamy and miscegenation in general as things which involve plenty of psychological baggage, not the least of which, as a form of inter-ethnic warfare

chuck said...


I’m not sure. We have .10 between races, .5 within races between populations, x within populations between individuals, 1- (.15 + x) within individuals between chromosomes (or whatever). For X = .85, the within individual variance would have to be equal to 0. Yet we know that it isn’t. Intra individual variance is not uncommonly assessed for other animals -- so that can’t be it.

I don’t know. Somebody's wrong here and I would like to find out who (Barbujani or Sarich).

Reactionary_Konkvistador said...

@Dragon Horse: The point about Hispanics is a interesting one.

Perhaps central American Ameridians are likewise adapted to the lack of seasons? But this is foolish speculation I'll rather go research if the surviving native societies in the region are matrilinear or not...

Anonymous said...

Teen motherhood may be pathological from a socio-economic perspective but it certainly is not maladaptive from a biological point of view. Conversely, the most educated women are the most likely to never become mothers.

(Eugene, I don't like quotation marks that do not contain an exact quote.)

Tod said...

The last comment was by me.

Steve Sailer said...

Barack Obama benefited from having a white grandmother who was only about 39 years older than him. When he was in prep school, living with his white grandparents in a tenth floor apartment with spectacular views of Honolulu, she was a vigorous woman in her mid-50s earning a lot of money as a bank executive.

Steve Sailer said...

My late mother-in-law, who was an energetic, sensible, and good-natured woman, died suddenly at a fairly young age just before our first child was born. In retrospect, lacking her help definitely made life harder subsequently for my wife and me.

Eugene said...

To some degree, matrilineal care for children is a feature of *all* human societies, not just blacks, for the simple reason of paternity uncertainty on the father's side. The wife's clan has the guarantee that any of her children are 100% hers, so they have more incentive to help with child-rearing, which is not the case with the husband's clan. ("Mommy's baby, daddy's maybe")

Eugene said...

BTW, thanks for that book recommendation, I'll have to research it.

Chuck said...

"I have trouble understanding Sarich and Miele's argument because we see the same pattern with Y chromosome and mtDNA variability, both of which are transmitted by one parent."


Here's a comment from Mountain and Risch (2007)

"Recent estimates of Average Fst are similar to early estimates, with exceptions such as the human Y and mitochondrial DNA (somewhat higher Fst values) and sets of STR loci (relatively low Fst values). A low average Fst for neutral genetic markers suggests that the power to define phenotypic differences in racial and ethnic categories is not typical of a single neutrally evolving locus. On the other hand, an Fst estimate of .10-.15 does not rule out a genetic basis for phenotypic differences between groups...."

Now, they cite Jorde,et al (2000), who state:

"GST values are 11%–18% for the autosomal systems and are two to three times higher for the mtDNA sequence and Y-chromosome RSPs."

Based on Jorde (2000), it doesn't seem that the mtDNA and Y Fst values are inconsistent with Sarich's point. The comment in Mountain and Risch (2004) reinforce, in my mind, the importance of resolving this and -- if Sarich is right, having someone publish "Lewontin's Fallacy 2.0."

Jorde, 2000. The distribution of human genetic diversity: a comparison of mitochondrial, autosomal, and Y-chromosome data

Mountain and Risch (2004). Assessing genetic contributions to phenotypic differences among contributions to phenotypic differences among 'racial' and 'ethnic' groups.

Peter Frost said...


Revenge might be a motivating factor for some African American men. But why do we see the same race/sex imbalance in marriages between African Americans and Asians or Latinos?


Interesting. I always thought the pattern was the same with mtDNA.


Tropical Amerindians seem to have been evolving toward the sub-Saharan model (higher rates of polygyny, female farming, higher male-male competition for mates). But they had not gone as far down that road. This may be because sub-Saharan Africans had more time to adapt to female-dominated tropical horticulture. Or perhaps the relevant genetic variability had been "wrung" out of ancestral Amerindians when they inhabited the Arctic.


I'm not sure about teen motherhood. But I think people should marry earlier (and get parental assistance from grandma and grandpa).


I regret having had so little contact with my grandparents. I once met my paternal grandfather and never met the others. My mother being 40 when I was born, they all died when I was still a toddler.


There is some tendency to revert to matriarchy and matrilineality, if conditions permit. I suspect those predispositions have not been fully wrung out of the Eurasian gene pool.

20 April, 2011 8:42:00 PM EST

Tod said...

mtDNA would (more or less) have to be under selection for your ideas about the origin of Europeans to be right

Anonymous said...

Man With 21 Children With 11 Women said...

My hypothesis about the teen pregnancy in African Americans:
they are inclined to early pregnancy/motherhood so, when the social norms pressure fell they reverted back to early pregnancies. This was/is more intense with poor AA than with middle class ones (any study about the mixed ancestry of the middle class AA?).

But, living in the US, with his welfare and laws and urban setting (where so many poor AA live), the first and the second generations of females were increasingly pushed to invest in themselves and not in their children's children. So their children before and their children's children were forced to reduce their fertility because there was not someone to offload the workload. This forced the mothers to stay poor, because, without the help of their mothers, they would be forced to raise the children themselves and were not able to work and earn.

The reduced quality and quantity of parenting and the reduced size of the family caused the children to grow maladapted and with difficult to reproduce.

In this cases, the "sins" of the grandparents will fall on the grandchildren.

An interesting topic would be the black female - white/whatever male relations (marriage or simply fathering). Do really only the black males go hunting for other race chicks or the female do too but don't tell so much.

luke said...


1. The Black men/ White women phenomenon is largely over-exaggerated. Only 14% of married Black men did so outside the race.

2. Compared to other minorities, Blacks (both male and female) are actually the least likely marry/date outside their race (casual sex however is another story), Hispanics are the most.

3. Blacks are also the least likely to ever marry in general. However, this has no major impact on the fertility or sex life since Blacks are consistently the most sexually active race in America and their fertility rate as of 2017 is 2.1

4. Interracial mating patterns are largely explained by average racial differences in masculinity and femininity. Males of all groups naturally prefer more feminine women, while females of all groups naturally prefer more masculine men. This is why with Blacks (the most masculine race) the males are 2x more likely to mate out, with East Asians (the most feminine race) the females are 3x more likely and with Caucasians (in between of both traits) males and females are equally likely to mate out.